By Jack Bowman (he/him)
American artist and author Richard Bruce Nugent was the first openly gay Black writer. Although operating within what is now widely understood as a vibrant artistic scene of gay, lesbian, and bisexual participants, Nugent was one of the only expressly out members of the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote and created from a perspective of being Black and gay, the two identities sometimes combining harmoniously, at other times butting heads. However, despite the growing literature on homosexuality in the Harlem Renaissance, figures like Nugent still only occupy the outskirts of debates surrounding queer Black histories.
Nugent’s wealth of artistic projects vary from short stories and poems to paintings and prints, and he often engaged with other important Black figures of the period. This legacy of work demonstrates the enormous impact and importance he holds, not just as a Black artist or a gay man, but as a figure who reconciled these two. Nugent left an indelible mark on those who he touched in life, and he continues to impress upon anyone who reads his work now the same lasting sentiment. He was a groundbreaking trailblazer, unashamedly out and proud whilst influencing and driving a pivotal artistic movement of the twentieth century.
Nugent arrived in New York in August 1925 with poet Langston Hughes, aged nineteen. The Harlem Renaissance was well underway following work from Claude McKay, Jean Toomers, Alain Locke, and Hughes. McKay, an author and poet, now widely accepted as bisexual although then not explicitly out, had released Harlem Shadows in 1922, a foundational work of the Renaissance. Hughes, who lived closeted but imbued his work with homoerotic undertones and experiences, was releasing poems in Vanity Fair.Jean Toomers had published the experimental and acclaimed Cane in 1923, a selection of vignettes ranging from prose and poetry to song and short story, centred on the African American experience.
Out of these emerging artists, it was Alain Locke who most decisively shaped and led the Harlem Renaissance. Seen as the ‘dean’ of the movement the Harvard professor was the older figure of the artistic circles he frequented, and edited the seminal collection of the Renaissance The New Negro. Locke too struggled with expressing his identity as a gay man, and actively sought to keep it hidden from all but those of his closest allies for fear it would be used against him. With The New Negro Locke cemented both his position and those of the writings included in the book, as the central parts of the Renaissance.
It was against this vibrant artistic scene that nineteen year old Richard Bruce Nugent arrived in Harlem. However, unlike the majority of queer artists who kept their sexuality from the eyes of outsiders Nugent never hid who he was. As his friend Thomas Wirth remarked, he ‘resolutely refused to hide … [his] openly expressed sexual interest in men’. The same year Nugent had his first work published, the poem ‘Shadow’ in Opportunity magazine, a journal of the Harlem Renaissance that often printed works by McKay, Hughes, and Countee Cullen, another gay man struggling with his outward identity. Nugent had also drawn the cover of Opportunity for the March 1926 edition.
However, it was Nugent’s short story Sahdji that confirmed his place within the inner circle of the Renaissance’s most important artists. When Locke asked Nugent to contribute to his anthology The New Negro Nugent offered a simple drawing of a young girl standing outside a hut, bracelets jangling. Locke, struck by its beauty, asked ‘it looks like a story. Can you write something about it?’ Nugent did and Sahdji was born. The inclusion of this two-page story, still debated as to whether it is a gay prose text or a morality tale, within Locke’s anthology confirmed Nugent’s place at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance.
During this time Nugent had various short-lived relations with other men, although none struck him as deeply as a previous lover from his time in Greenwich Village. A year before he moved north to Harlem Nugent, then working at the Martha Washington Hotel in The Village, fell in love with kitchen worker Juan José Viana. This brief but intense relationship formed the basis of much of his later work, most notably the character of Beauty in his seminal Smoke, Lilies and Jade. The party atmosphere of the shared house of the movement, combined with Nugent’s comfort to ‘flaunt his sexuality’, labelled him truly as the gay rebel of the Harlem Renaissance.
Recent histories of the movement with an increased focus on the vibrant mix of sexualities and sexual preferences that surrounded its actors have overlooked the contemporary situation. Despite the large presence of queer artists and authors many of these figures were closeted, or at the very least extremely discrete in expressing their sexuality. Nugent was both an outlier and forebearer in expressing his identity, liberating himself from the rigidity of the heteronormative societal pressures that surrounded even such a radical movement as the Harlem Renaissance. As Wirth put it ‘of all the male Harlem Renaissance writers who were sexually attracted to other men, only Nugent broke the taboo … only Nugent published work that would lead his readers to identify him unmistakably as “queer”.’
Smoke, Lilies and Jade was the published work in which Nugent most explicitly and brazenly expressed himself. Published in November 1926 it is a seminal text in queer Black literature and an unprecedented expression of homoerotic desire. This landmark short story was printed in a similarly groundbreaking publication, the journal Fire!!. Both Nugent’s heady and intoxicating text, and the radical publication that Fire!! was, clearly designated that the younger artists of the Renaissance had come into their own. Fire!! was co-edited by Wallace Thurman and Nugent. Thurman, whose marriage to his wife Louise Thompson failed after six months with her declaring he wouldn’t admit to his own homosexuality, would go on to write his most famous novel The Blacker the Berry in 1929.
Fire!! was established as an alternative to Opportunity which was seen as tame and under the influence of a civil rights movement, not an artistic one, as well as an alternative to W. E. B. Du Bois’ Crisis, an even more political journal. Du Bois was an important figure in the emerging Pan-African movement, but as an ivory tower academics saw art as only having value as propaganda. To break away from these rigid confines Thurman, Nugent, and others created Fire!!. The first and only edition of the quarterly was printed in November 1926, containing work that would never have been publishable in Opportunity, Crisis, or any other journal. Much of the journal featured illustrations from Nugent and his Smoke, Lilies and Jade, which sat alongside works from Thurman, Hughes, Cullen, and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, artist and writer Gwendolyn Bennett, and painter Aaron Douglas.
Soon after its initial print run the offices of Fire!! were burnt down, and it never published another issue. However, in just a few pages the magazine had lit a fire within the queer Black community. The journal was derided by elite contemporaries who saw its content as vulgar and out of line with the carefully cultivated image of Harlem they had sought to foster. For Nugent, this was the success he desired. Fire!! with its expression of the queer Black experience and interrogation of rigid ideas ushered in a new wave of the Harlem Renaissance. It was experimental, radical, and raw. From its pages came the first gay prose of a queer Black artist, supplemented by a wealth of other artistic endeavours all fixed on upsetting the system. In just two years from his arrival in Harlem Nugent had reshaped the movement.
Richard Bruce Nugent’s story is one of unfettered expression, of liberation both sexual and racial. He is a forefather of queer literature who continued to create and express himself for the rest of his long life. As one of the last surviving artists of the Harlem Renaissance Nugent would look back on decades of art and activism, still the fiery figure of the 1920s even in his late seventies. His legacy of work speaks to his rejection of societal norms and his groundbreaking position within both Black and queer histories. In reflecting on the upset he created as both a Black and gay artist he recalled Du Bois’ criticisms and disappointment in his work. In true Nugent style, he took this head-on, with wry humour: ‘I remember Du Bois did ask, “Did you have to write about homosexuality? Couldn’t you write about colored people? Who cares about homosexuality?” I said, “You’d be surprised how good homosexuality is. I love it.” Poor Du Bois.’ Like countless others, Du Bois couldn’t reconcile the notion of Nugent’s identity as Black and gay. Poor Du Bois indeed.
Written by Jack Bowman
@jackawbowman on Twitter
- Richard Bruce Nugent and Thomas H. Wirth (eds.), Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent (Durham, NC, 2002).
- Richard Bruce Nugent and Wallace Thurman (eds.), Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists, 1 (1926), available here.
- Ellen McBreen, ‘Biblical Gender Bending in Harlem: The Queer Performance of Nugent’s Salome’, Art Journal, 57 (1998), pp. 22-28.
 Richard Bruce Nugent, ‘Smoke, Lilies and Jade’, in Richard Bruce Nugent and Thomas H. Wirth (eds.), Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent (Durham, NC, 2002), p. 87.
 Claude McKay, Harlem Shadows (New York, 1922).
 Thomas H. Wirth, ‘Introduction’, in Nugent and Wirth, Gay Rebel, p. 2.
 Jean Toomers, Cane (New York, 1923).
 Adam Kirsch, ‘Rediscovering Alain Locke and the project of black self-realization’, April 2018, consulted at https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2018/03/alain-locke-the-new-negro (23 June 2021); Alain Locke (ed.), The New Negro: An Interpretation (New York, 1925).
 Wirth, ‘Introduction’, p. 17.
 Linda M. Carter, ‘Richard Bruce Nugent’, in Emmanuel S. Nelson (ed.), African American Dramatists: An A-to-Z Guide (Westport, CT, 2004), p. 317.
 Cover of Opportunity consulted in Nugent and Wirth, Gay Rebel, p. 56.
 ibid., p. 318.
 Wirth, ‘Introduction’, p. 11.
 Richard Bruce Nugent, transcript of an interview by Jewelle L. Gomez, 17 April 1983, quoted in Nugent and Wirth, Gay Rebel, p. 21.
 Wirth, ‘Introduction’, p. 50.
 Louise Thompson quoted in Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I: 1902–1941, I, Too, Sing America (New York, 1986), p. 172; Wallace Thurman, The Blacker the Berry (New York, 1929).
 Wirth, ‘Introduction’, p. 14; W. E. B. Du Bois, ‘Criteria of Negro Art’, Crisis, 32 (1926), pp. 290-7.
 Richard Bruce Nugent and Wallace Thurman (eds.), Fire!!, 1 (1926).
 Richard Bruce Nugent quoted in Jeff Kisseloff, You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890s to World War II (New York, 1989), p. 288.
Cover of Fire!!, 1926 (Public Domain)
Image of Richard Bruce Nugent, 1982. (Tom Wirth, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons).